The waters of the mighty Mekong River have sustained generations of families, but nowadays its fishermen often find their nets empty and fear hydropower mega-dams will destroy their livelihoods.
Pat Chaiwong has fished the Mekong in northern Thailand for three decades, but good days are increasingly rare.
“Some days I can catch fish. Some days I don’t catch any,” lamented the 67-year-old, one of about two dozen fishermen in the community of Wiang Kaen in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
For many in the community, the reason lies upriver in the Chinese province of Yunnan where dams on the upper reaches of the river disturb the delicate cycle of nature.
“Usually the water would rise [and fall] with the seasons,” said fisherman Decha Chaiwong, 48.
Now it ebbs and flows depending on whether the dams are open or closed, he said. “That’s why the fish have decreased.”
Today a new threat looms downstream in neighboring Laos.
The Xayaburi hydropower project is one of 11 planned on the lower Mekong, raising worries for the future of the 60 million people in the region estimated to depend on the river in some way.
The 4,800km-long waterway, the longest in Southeast Asia, is home to hundreds of species of freshwater fish including the endangered giant Mekong catfish, according to WWF, a conservation group.
Environmentalists warn that damming the lower Mekong would trap vital nutrients, increase algae growth and prevent dozens of species of migratory fish — including the giant catfish — swimming upstream to spawning grounds.
“If there is the Xayaburi dam, fish cannot lay eggs and the numbers of fish and their breeds decrease. There will definitely be a big impact,” said Niwat Roykaew, president of the Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network in Chiang Rai province.
Many of the roughly 200 species in the lower Mekong swim upriver to spawn — one of the most important mass river migrations in the world, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC).
The hydroelectric project at Xayaburi, led by Thai group CH Karnchang, has sharply divided four Mekong nations — Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand — who formed the MRC, an intergovernmental group.
Communist Laos, one the world’s most under-developed nations, believes the planned 1,285 megawatt dam — which will cost US$3.5 billion according to state media — will help it become “the battery of Southeast Asia.”
Thailand has agreed to buy most of the electricity generated by the project, but Cambodia and Vietnam fear the dam could seriously affect fish migration and sediment flows, hitting their farming and fishing industries.
Despite the concerns, construction on the main part of the dam began in November with Laos predicting completion by the end of 2019.
Niwat described the decision to go ahead without listening to people’s concerns as “a coup d’etat against the Mekong River.”
“We’re the children of the Mekong River. We were born and grew up on the Mekong. It has taken care of us and provided for us. Then one day the dams came,” he added.
His association has filed a lawsuit against the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and the Thai government in an attempt to block the project.
Neither EGAT nor developer CH Karnchang responded to request for comment.
Laos has modified the design to try to minimize the impact, said Hans Guttman, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat.